More and more ghosts are being drawn to Oak Bluffs’ attractive summer housing. “Some spirits have a sliver of their psyche attached to some place where they were happy,” explains Holly Nadler, Haunted Island author, bookstore owner and part-time ghost-hunter. As these properties change owners more frequently, some are becoming crowded. “This place is gooey with ghosts,” said Ms. Nadler, conducting a tour of the Camp Ground last weekend.
Most of these spirits are essentially harmless, Ms. Nadler says, seeking little more than some posthumous Vineyard R and R, rent-free. Others though, such as those of sisters Julie and Loulou Danzell, the Oak Bluffs arsonists of 1894, have an altogether more malevolent agenda.
“There is nothing suspicious about the conditions that led to the blaze,” Oak Bluffs fire chief Dennis Alley informed readers of this newspaper when, in February of 2002, technology millionaire turned philanthropist Peter Norton’s Ocean Park home was consumed by fire. A simple electrical fault was identified as the cause and the case was closed. Cut, dry and altogether unscary you might think.
However, contrary to Mr. Alley’s reassurances, the investigation left more questions than answers. Why was no evidence found of faulty wiring? Why did the fitted smoke alarms fail to sound adequately? How did an electrical short occurring deep within the outer wall of the front porch spark a blaze that reduced the house to its newly-restored foundations, despite being too insignificant to trip the house breakers?
Reminiscing about the fire this week, the retired chief’s words contrasted sharply with the mollifying tone of his original statement. “That night you had rain water, salt water and a lot of wind,” he said. “The conditions were perfect for someone who wanted a big house burned in a big way.”
To get to the bottom of what really happened to Peter Norton’s house you have to go back more than a hundred years.
When on the 13th of November 1894, Augustus Wesley confessed to starting the Welsey Hotel fire, the Oak Bluffs community, rocked by a series of fires over the previous two years, had breathed a sigh of relief. From the Seaview and Highland House to a rash of Camp Ground cottages, a dozen buildings had gone up in flames — and while arson had been suspected, no arrests had been made. Now, finally, a culprit had been fingered and locked behind bars.
The following Monday, though, the Duffy family cottage burned down in the Camp Ground. Those who had pinned all the fires on Wesley once again faced the possibility that the serial arsonist remained at large. The citizenry, scared to sleep in their beds, began witch-hunting potential pyromaniacs. The bars and hotels were vacant. The neighborhood was terrorized.
Around this time Daniel Lewis, a 23-year-old Vineyard Haven resident took a young lady out. Mr. Lewis and Julia Danzell, who worked with her sister as a maid at the Norton house on Ocean avenue, walked down to watch the lights from boats passing through the harbor. Mr. Lewis later told police that he and Ms. Danzell enjoyed many walks together. This night, however, as the pair strolled through the Camp Grounds, Ms. Danzell produced a cigarette from her pocket, and asked for a match. With it lit, she ran around the back of a cottage, pursued hotly by her suitor.
Catching up, he saw her busily ripping up clods of grass. Gathering these in her fist and using the tip of the cigarette, she set a fire at the bottom of the cottage. He asked what she was doing. “None of your business. I had a spite on a man,” she replied. She then ran into the house, reemerging with something hidden in her clothes, and the pair ran.
A few days later the local police raided the home Ms. Danzell shared with her sister and found objects from many of the burned houses. The girls went to jail.
What happened to the Danzell sisters afterwards isn’t clear. Holly Nadler has gathered anecdotal evidence that they lived out their lives miserably in an insane asylum off-Island. She is fully convinced, though, that one or both Danzell sisters in 2002 decided to spite Peter Norton’s efforts to restore their dilapidated workplace, the way they knew best. “It took the fire for me to make the firm connection between the spirits in that building and Julia Danzell,” she says. Defying the Danzell sisters, Mr. Norton rebuilt the house for a second time, again down to the last detail.
This weekend Ms. Nadler will lead a new throng of spirit-botherers to the restored Norton house, the finale of her Oak Bluffs ghost tour. The question is whether the ghosts are still in the house. “Who knows?” says Holly. “But I do think the Danzell sisters occasionally waft through the Norton house.”
If last week’s tour was anything to go by, Ms. Nadler’s creepy storytelling will have the desired effect on her audience. One such member, Sophie, a frightened nine-year-old, was forced to beat a hasty retreat home with her father. Martha Klein of Edgartown, was moved to physical assault when a fellow walker kidded about a moving shadow in a corner window. Even Ms. Nadler admitted to being reassured by the large crowd, frightened to conduct the tour without adequate safety in numbers. Expect full-blown hysteria as Halloween approaches.